Listen. Did you hear that splash? That was a hickory shad that hit a fisherman’s jig, leaped high in the air and did a belly flop on the lower Roanoke River down near Edenton, N.C.
But there are bigger splashes to be heard in the next few weeks. That’s because vast numbers of striped bass will be chasing the shad upriver, eating them and anything else in sight as they push their way up the Roanoke River into Virginia’s Staunton River, heading towards Buggs Island Lake.
Some of the best fishing in the entire world is right around the corner.
Every year, thousands of Virginians head for a place called Weldon, N.C., on the Roanoke River, buy an out of state fishing license and catch a hundred or more striped bass a day. Some of these stripers run 10 to 20 pounds. It is non-stop action, as zany as a Marx Brothers movie.
Both shad and striped bass are an androgenous species of fish, meaning they spend time in both salt and fresh water. In both cases, the fish begin moving out of the ocean in March and head upriver to spawn, with the shad getting a head start.
Shad are famous, of course, for their roe. They say that shad sustained the early populations of English settlers in North America, and they remain prized for their delicious roe even today. There are two types of shad: hickory shad, which are legal to catch; and American shad, a larger fish that is protected because of declining numbers. Both are tremendous acrobats at the end of a fishing line. They leap five, six and seven times and fight like much bigger fish than they really are. That’s because saltwater species are generally stronger, having current and tides to contend with.
But back to the stripers: these silver warriors generally run two to three weeks behind the shad. The schools become hugely concentrated in the Roanoke River as they head upstream.
North Carolina has a split season for stripers in the Roanoke River. Anglers can keep two fish per day, at least 18 inches in length, but no fish between 22 and 27 inches may be in possession at any time. The season runs from April 10-16 in the lower rivers downstream of the U.S. Highway 258 bridge and April 24-30 upstream from the US 258 Bridge.
Fishing for stripers in the lower Roanoke River should be on the bucket list of every fisherman alive.
Shad are also making an appearance on both the James and the Rappahannock rivers. As a rule, the Rapp has more fish and it also has easier access. In Fredericksburg, there are a number of places where fisherman can wade and cast. Some use fly rods, while others toss light jigs on spinning rods. Many believe that the shad bite out of reflex, not because they are hungry, and shad are among the most finicky fish that swim. Some days, they want a pink jig, nothing else. Then the next day it’s chartreuse or white or who knows what color. The best tactic is to have a number of different colors and to keep changing jigs until something works.
Shad fishing generally peaks in mid-April, about the time the dogwoods bloom. Fredericksburg is about an hour’s drive. Need I say more?